With its $1.5 million annual budget, more lobbyists than the Boeing Co. and chapters in every county in the state, the Washington State Farm Bureau is a growing player in state politics.
Farm bureau activists led the fight for Initiative 601, the tax and spending limitation measure adopted in 1993. Then they helped elect a slew of Republican candidates to the Legislature and Congress last year.
Now they have a new fight: Initiative 164.
The Farm Bureau has volunteered its statewide organization as the field campaign for the property rights measure, which opponents want to overturn at the ballot this November.
The property rights fight is just part of the Farm Bureau’s effort to be a force in state politics, said Steve Appel of Dusty, Farm Bureau president.
“It’s the name of the game. For too long farmers have sat on the sidelines and hoped a few friends in the Legislature would take care of them,” he said.
“We’re cranking it up and putting it in a pro-active mode. We want to be at the table. It’s not enough to cuss and sit on the sidelines.”
The Farm Bureau’s new activism is a sign of the times, Appel said. “Our dads and their dads were able to farm their way, with very little interference.” New land use regulations changed that.
“The new generation is a lot more politically active because it has to be,” he said. Besides, he added, “Now is a good time politically for a conservative group like ours.”
The state Farm Bureau registered seven lobbyists during the 1995 Legislature session, two of them full-time. It more than quadrupled lobbying expenditures in the past five years, state records show.
“We wanted to go in there and really be a player,” said J. Patrick Batts, the Farm Bureau’s new administrative vice president. Batts was hired 10 months ago from Chicago to raise the organization’s political profile.
Members of the Farm Bureau’s legislative team meet in Olympia every Monday during the legislative session to plot strategy.
Farm Bureau activists throughout the state are kept up to date with the bureau’s fax network, a newsletter, and a radio program heard on 30 stations statewide.
This past legislative session, Farm Bureau members from around the state paid legislators more than 300 visits, asking them to support I-164 and roll back health care reform.
Lawmakers did both. Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau’s staff has doubled to 15, and membership is expected to top 12,000 this year, Appel said.
About half of the bureau’s members are working farmers. The rest have businesses that are farm-related, or joined to take advantage of its insurance programs.
The state Farm Bureau’s budget has grown to $1.5 million a year, and it declared more than $6 million in assets in its most recent report to the Secretary of State.
As a tax-exempt service organization, the Farm Bureau can’t directly endorse candidates. And so far, it has no political action committee.
But it supplies the crucial grassroots army and image needed to win a political fight.
“We’ll put an all-out effort into getting this thing passed,” Appel said of Referendum 48, which voters must approve if I-164 is to become law in November.
“We are organizing in every county in the state to show the grassroots support in this campaign. That’s going to be real important, to show voters this isn’t just a bigmoney interest for big-money people.”
Bob Nix, a Farm Bureau member and Chehalis dairy farmer who directed the Initiative 601 campaign, is plotting strategy for Initiative 164.
Linda Johnson, who led U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton’s grassroots re-election effort in 1994, will direct the field campaign for I-164. Johnson also is the Farm Bureau’s new legislative director.
Dan Wood, who has led the I-164 fight, is a Farm Bureau staff member and a campaign spokesman.
Farm Bureau chapter leaders from across the state will meet next week in Olympia to kick off the campaign.
The Farm Bureau’s participation provides a public relations boost to the property rights initiative. The measure has a fat cat image problem because building, real estate, and timber interests are bankrolling the campaign.
Voters might not be sympathetic to timber companies and developers seeking cash compensation for property rendered idle by regulation, as I-164 would require.
“But when people understand it’s farmers losing land to wetlands and wildlife habitat, people respond to that,” Batts said.
“We volunteered to run the grassroots campaign. Regrettably the builders put money into this, and that’s got to be acknowledged. But for opponents to suggest there is not grassroots support for this is wrong,” he said.
Nix is well aware family farmers have a special cache.
“People know farmers work hard for a living, and don’t even have time to be doing this. They aren’t some paid political consulting firm from the East Coast.
“The Farm Bureau is the perfect organization to do this.”
Political observers agreed: “The Farm Bureau is the best public face they could find. It’s a good fit,” said Tarso Ramos of the Western States Center in Portland, which tracks the property rights movement.
“But it’s revisionist history. Look at where the money came from to make this happen. Big business.”
John Lamson of the No on Referendum 48 Coalition said opponents are prepared to meet the “little people” image of the Farm Bureau head-on.
“I don’t think they will be able to convince the public that this is a small property owner’s initiative,” he said. “Just look at the money trail.”
Win or lose on the referendum, the Farm Bureau is in the political ring to stay, Batts said.
“This is not a test case. It’s a kick off. It’s just the beginning.”